Expert Explanations

Putting the pedal to the metal

December 3, 2021

It just takes a quick walk through McNeilus Steel’s newest Fargo facility to feel the weight of the growing industry. To the left, one finds large pallets of stock-sized cut steel. To the right, impressively giant leveling and stretching machinery processes product to lay flat. Even the rafters are packing power.

“That crane back there, that’s a 40-ton lift – 80,000 pounds,” said McNeilus Steel general manager Chad Wolf, pointing to the ceiling-mounted rig near the building’s loading area. “Each steel coil is between 40,000-60,000 pounds. These cranes are smaller at 10 tons, or 20,000 pounds,” he continued as his gesture moved to the machine gliding overhead.

This is the strength McNeilus Steel needs to carry out its mission of supplying steel and steel solutions to its customer base, which has continued to grow over the years. The three-generation family-owned company began in Dodge Center, Minn., but expanded to Fargo in 1997. Since then, demand and opportunity allowed for a second Fargo building in 2010, which experienced its own expansions in 2011 and 2018. McNeilus now boasts a 500,000-square-foot facility footprint, and Wolf says there’s no intention of slowing down.

McNeilus Steel general manager Chad Wolf describes the process of leveling and stretching steel coils. (CCEC/Sara Hand)

“We could definitely see more expansion. It’s going to be customer and market driven, but we’re set up to succeed, and that’s very much the focus of our ownership,” he said. “Their strategy is to continue to grow and reinvest in the company.”

When Wolf started with McNeilus Steel in 2008, the Fargo arm of company had grown from a dozen to 45 employees in order to ship around 450,000 pounds of product a day. Today, their team includes 163 people, shipping up to 1.2 million pounds a day within a 5-hour radius around Fargo. Unlike many companies, they have not lost employees or productivity during the COVID pandemic.

“We’re pretty lucky. We have a really great team and people have stuck it out with us,” Wolf said. “We have even added some employees since. We have a reputation for being a good place to work, and place that takes care of its people and cares. That makes it easier to retain people.”

Power of partnership

As McNeilus Steel continues to grow, so does its list of power needs. More production means more fiber-optic laser cutters (up to 15,000 watts), more brake presses, more lights, more everything. But as a business member of Cass County Electric Cooperative (CCEC), they aren’t concerned.

“Even with the robust growth they’ve seen, with additions and the new laser cutting line, it hasn’t been reflected in the electricity bill, because it’s been offset by some of the other efficiencies they’ve been finding,” said Chad Brousseau, CCEC business accounts executive.

“The partnership with Cass County Electric has been great,” said McNeilus Steel operations manager Travis Qualley. “I can reach out to Chad and say, ‘Hey, we’re adding some new machines – how are we sitting? Is our transformer going to hold up?’ He’s helped with different ideas about how to save money and what other people are doing, or ways to trim our energy use.”

CCEC helped McNeilus Steel integrate one of the company’s large, 200-kilowatt generators into CCEC’s commercial demand response (or off-peak) program, saving about 20-25% on their electric bill by switching over to a backup generator during peak demand times. Brousseau says most industrial facilities already have an emergency backup generator to avoid outages, so the program just makes sense.

A steel coil is hauled into the queue at McNeilus Steel in Fargo. (CCEC/Sara Hand)

Qualley and Brousseau also worked together on a major lighting retrofit project in both Fargo facilities, swapping out 1,000-watt metal halides with new 270-watt LEDs. The project is nearly 100% complete, and the company has already seen significant energy savings.

“We ran some ROI (return on investment) factors, and it was definitely worth the investment. It was a three-year payback,” Qualley explained.

“And the quality of light on the floor is better, too,” Wolf added. “It’s just a different kind of light. It’s brighter, and the guys really appreciate it.”

Brousseau explained that before the lighting retrofit, the north facility generator used to be overloaded in the summer – they could only run it during the winter. Now, this new level of efficiency has dropped their summer load enough that they can take advantage of the generator in both seasons. “That expanded the savings even more,” he said.

McNeilus Steel employees use levelers, stretchers, laser cutters, brake presses and more to craft the steel elements they supply. (CCEC/Sara Hand)

Community first

McNeilus Steel couldn’t do what it does without the co-op, but the co-op couldn’t do what it does without McNeilus Steel. The company produces the strips of shaped used for the booms of bucket trucks – the key fleet tool of CCEC lineworkers. McNeilus also works closely with other locally based equipment manufacturers to supply the steel needed to make ag-implements, trailers, airport ground support equipment, loaders, excavators and attachments.

Wolf says a part of their mission is supporting the needs of the Fargo community and the businesses of the Minnesota-Dakota region. But he reiterates that the foundation of the company’s success isn’t just new state-of-the art equipment – it has always been the people. All McNeilus shipping routes allow their drivers to be back home in Fargo by the end of the day, and no employee needs to worry about working a Saturday, as operations halt that day for a rest.

“It’s the little things. It’s not just pay,” Wolf said, describing spring family picnics and pickup giveaways at company Christmas parties. “There are so many things that we do for employees.”

“Our team is excellent,” Qualley added. “We couldn’t accomplish what we do without a great team.”

MAIN IMAGE: Cass County Electric Cooperative's Chad Brousseau (right) joins McNeilus Steel leaders Travis Qualley (left) and Chad Wolf at their newest Fargo facility. (CCEC/Sara Hand)


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